Over the past 12 months, a retailers’ success has almost solely relied upon their ability to build relationships with customers in the virtual environments social restrictions had forced them to inhabit. So when brick-and-mortar stores finally reopened in the UK last month — although widely anticipated — many of us questioned how these online connections would affect the opportunity to rebuild offline ones yet again.

Since stores first shut their doors, retail has become a wholly different and uncertain landscape. In fact, nothing could have highlighted the vulnerabilities of physical retail more than the continuously surging and subsiding waves of Covid-19. During lockdowns the primary problem for retailers was being left with inventory they couldn’t move, and then by the time stores reopened such stock was outdated both in product style and season. Physical retail was also the main channel of engagement with customers that, in many cases, did not have an easy digital alternative. So not only did the pandemic lay bare the fragility of retailers who had not given much thought to their digital commerce channels, but it also showed consumers just how powerful online connections to the brands they are invested in could become when offline engagement is longer possible.

After all, one doesn’t have to be particularly observant to see that as consumers, we have found solace in the convenience and accessibility of digital commerce. In 2020 e-commerce reached an all-time high, accounting for 16.5% of global retail sales, and 92% of consumers now claim they intend to stick to e-commerce shopping after COVID-19.

And at the root of these flourishing digital bonds are a growing number of customer-centric tech solutions designed to foster engagement, loyalty, and discovery. From virtual shopping appointments through to augmented reality try-on of 3D assets, what a year ago were quick-thinking agile ideas to mitigate the risk of lost store revenue have become critical long-term strategies embedded into everyday marketing and sales operations.

In recent years, categories such as beauty and homeware have steadily become benchmarks of exemplary innovation in digital commerce — using an alphabet of both established and emerging channels from M (mobile), S (social) to V (virtual) commerce to reach customers. Yet, for a long time, fashion has pigeonholed “digital” as a marketing tool rather than a viable, multi-faceted channel in its own right.

For heritage brands, such as Chanel (who still resist selling clothing online) and Bottega Veneta (who recently deleted all their social media accounts), their brand cachet has always been enough to draw customers into stores. But as business models, consumer culture, and the fashion calendar all simultaneously evolve, for many fashion retailers who aren’t afforded such status, focusing entirely on brick-and-mortar is not a realistic option in today’s market.

Yet an exception to this rule has always been multi-brand e-commerce platforms (such as Farfetch, Net-A-Porter, and Mytheresa) that — often competing with the same stock — viewed digital innovation as a necessity to survive in a saturated market segment. Curated edits, rewards programmes, and mobile apps are standard practices for platforms like these that understand customer desire for frictionless and unique experiences, and recognise that shoppers at the high end don’t just buy on price alone. But, when their brick-and-mortar rivals suddenly lost their long-established physical presences and made the seismic shift to online-first, they needed to create a competitive edge that extended beyond the product and into the realm of digital experiences. And for organisations whose omnichannel strategies had previously been weighted towards physical channels, it quickly became evident that few brands and retailers had achieved complete continuity across online and offline touchpoints.

But as is often the case in fashion, necessity spurred invention.  Take Selfridges, who were forced to cut 450 jobs last year — at the same time Farfetch was edging towards profitability. Their digital strategy over the past year included everything from a LOL-a thon (comedy telethon) on Instagram, virtual panels for Earth Day, and at-home experience boxes for celebratory events such as Mothers Day in attempts to keep customers connected to that feeling of walking their halls.  All of these initiatives came about as a way to remain connected to shoppers, but rather than stopping them when stores were permitted to reopen, Selfridges – and forward-thinking retailers like them – began to realise that they had created entirely new touchpoints and experiences that could be successfully folded into a truly multi-channel consumer engagement strategy.

And this could prove to be a valuable tool now that previously physical-heavy retailers set out to reclaim the revenue and mind share they might have lost to online-native competition during the worst days of COVID.  In fact, these digital strategies, paired to physical stores where tangible experiences can be created and controlled, could help put these retailers back at the front of the race.

But brick-and-mortar retailers will need to face this challenging opportunity – incorporating new channels, touchpoints and experiences into a cohesive omnichannel identity – head-on, seamlessly linking the online and in-store touchpoints that audiences now more readily move between.

There is already evidence to suggest that brands are building for the future with this blending of channels in mind, rather than neglecting physical retail in favour of online, or vice versa.  Consider Anya Hindmarch’s upcoming village of stores on London’s Pont Street, which are being positioned as a physical extension of the Anya’s World online experiences and engagement channels. This announcement is a prime example of retail’s need to build out their creative ideas in a convergence of physical and digital spaces, immersing customers in a brand as an experience rather than a mere collection of products. What some could consider a risky move, others view a strategic decision that adapts tried and tested e-commerce services — such as customisation in The Bespoke Shop and showcasing a commitment to important customer values like sustainability in The Plastic Shop — into an environment that offers increased engagement and discovery.

It goes without saying that store closures left measurable gaps in shopping experiences, made more evident by retailers such as Machine-A, John Lewis, and Lone Design Club, who are using AR and VR technology to replicate their stores in surrogate virtual environments. And while customers appear to have responded well to these as temporary replacements for physical stores, they also revealed that the strength of retail stores still lies in  the personal connection consumers can build with store staff, product, and location. Although the argument that personal service is better realised by the capabilities of e-commerce recommendations, chatbots, and remote accessibility is strong from an objective point of view, consumers still appear to want to communicate with fashion brands on a deeper and more individual level, with 25% desiring human interaction even when shopping online.

Ultimately the lack of socialisation provided through e-commerce is one of the fundamental differences between online and offline customer relationships. To many, the tangibility of shopping in a store remains unparalleled — but not through lack of trying on the retailers’ part. Several solutions are trying to build these human interactions into digital environments.

Toshi thrives at this all-important intersection of physical and digital commerce; bridging the two worlds by partnering with brands to imbue physical customer service into online purchases. In not overlooking the opportunity for real-world engagement from within the comfort of a consumer’s homes, Toshi not only deliver orders, but their add-on services at the POS create convenient human interactions immediately after purchase. In a sense they rather valuably help brands to put a sale associate on the doorstep of each customer allowing them to try their orders on before they buy, receive quick alterations, instantly return unwanted products, and test out alternate style recommendations.

At the same time, Bambuser enables retailers to create live-stream shopping content with real-time interaction with sales teams, empowering the social dynamics of traditional shopping in digital spaces. But even in physical environments, the human element of commerce these solutions take inspiration from often lack emotional depth. For many fashion consumers — including myself — inconsistency in customer service is a major pain point when you’ve given your loyalty to a brand online. When spending your hard-earned money does not translate in any way to your in-store experience, it can be frustrating. As fashion consumers we invest in our emotional connections to brands as we get to know them across many channels, but do retailers consistently know us in return?

As an aspirational shopper myself, this kind of acknowledgment had traditionally been reserved for high net worth customers, as digital personalisation takes us full circle — leading desires for the in-store recognition the local butchers and bakeries provided customers decades ago. And from this growing customer need a different yet not unfamiliar kind of salesperson has reemerged as interactive commerce — sometimes reminiscent of tried and tested models like QVC — becomes habitual within fashion. It would be no surprise if brands began to embed new requirements into sales roles or even design entirely new ones altogether, recruiting and training individuals to combine their personal instincts and charisma with product knowledge, live-presenting, and data literacy skillsets.

Because behind the scenes, often what enables both in-store sales staff and digital brand personalities to deliver these services is accessibility and analysis of numerous customer datasets, allowing them to understand their clients in a more granular way. Clienteling (the use of customer data by sales staff to create long-term relationships) is transformative to their everyday activities, making intimate customer service not just possible but efficient for high volumes of shoppers – across multiple channels. Solutions Hero and Seer, for instance, capitalise on luxury’s adoption of messaging services to more directly communicate with valued individual customers and empowers human personalisation at scale by helping sales associates to coordinate conversations and product curation.

Retailers such as Farfetch’s Browns store are early adopters of clienteling, providing their personal shopping team with online customer data such as previous transactions and wishlists to understand the extent of customer’s prior relationship with the brand across different touchpoints and channels, allowing staff to operate more confidently and embed emotional ties into store visits. Meanwhile Amazon Fresh effortlessly bridges online and offline relationships by connecting online customer accounts to their transactions in brick-and-mortar stores. The true power of this strategy however is in the automation of the process — consumers don’t have to do anything except have their phones on them.

In theory, these solutions and strategies to help businesses create rich connections beyond online transactions could to some seem like a steep and pre-emptive investment. But, looking forward, industry winners will surely be these retailers, capable of closing the widening disparity between their customers’ virtual and physical identities and their relationships with both.

So, as human interaction become more commonplace in e-commerce, while digital touchpoints become more deeply embedded into physical retail, the lines of online and offline continue to blur. And given that it’s now clear that these channels do not need to compete, fashion can begin to make full use of the unique properties of each, rather than attempting to replicate the purpose of one with the other.

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